This content was originally published by The Hop Review, a digital magazine that joined the Hop Culture family in March 2020.
This piece was written by Tom White.
Think of one word that describes the local brewery scene… go ahead, we’ll wait. For us, we just might go with “Collaborative”. We’ve sat down with nearly 40 Chicagoland beer industry folk, and virtually all of them have spoken to how the local industry is unwaveringly helpful, communal, and always willing to collaborate on everything from sharing brewery space to whipping up their next beer. Collaboration is one of the driving forces behind the explosion in our local craft beer scene.
This attitude is so prevalent, it’s even crossed industry lines. Cleetus Friedman is the Executive Chef at the Fountainhead group of restaurants that also includes nextdoor shop Fountainhead Market, THR favorite The Bar on Buena, neighborhood dive Montrose Saloon, and The Northman, the soon-to-be Northcenter cider pub. When not busy managing the fantastic food at each location, Cleetus has somehow found time to brew dozens of beers, collaborating with some of the biggest names in the local and national craft beer scene.
Cheers Cleetus! Let’s get right to your collaboration game. What did it take to turn a chef into a brewer?
I’m like a little kid. I go to bed every night pretty excited that I get to do what I do. On my most basic workday, it’s still exciting and fun. I never think, “What if people don’t like it?” I think I’m going to do it and see how it works. And if for some reason it doesn’t work, I need to find a way to make it work. When it comes to beers, when I first started brewing I didn’t know much about brewing. I just had ideas.
And that was how long ago?
About 4 1/2 years ago… yea, February of 2010. My first beer was Carburetor Rye Bock that I did with Metropolitan, and that was after two years of begging Doug [Hurst, Founder]. The first year they opened, we did a farm dinner. On the way back I said to Doug, “I want to make a beer with you.” He said “What are you talking about? We can’t do that!” Later we started talking, Templeton dropped off a rye barrel, and away we went.
I came back from that brew day and thought, “That was awesome, I want to do that a lot.” The next day I called every brewer I knew and said, “I want to make a beer with you.” Just about everyone was like “…ok….” I scheduled about five months of brewing.
It sounds like you’ve built a pretty solid brewing education from local brewers. What’s the most important thing you’ve picked up working with them?
It’s been interesting because I’ve brewed with everyone from Lake Effect in a 7 bbl brewhouse to Two Brothers which is 250 bbl. And Stone, and Against the Grain… all these guys have different styles. What I’ve learned the most is the sense of comradery and shared knowledge between everyone is the most inspiring thing that nobody knows about. I remember nine years ago, when I first got into City Provisions, I was talking Jim Ebel from Two Brothers and asked what he thought about all these new breweries. He said “It’s us against them. The smaller breweries against the Miller Coors and the big ones.” The more I got into brewing and the more I understood it, I always fall back to what he told me. It’s so true. For 99% of the brewing community here in Chicago, everybody is up to raise everybody else. You don’t hear shit talking between people.
What about from the brewing perspective? There must be a lot of crossover between the two worlds.
I’m always bringing food into the occasion. I’m learning more and more about where I can put things. Sometimes I make shit up and the brewer tells me if it will work. I also started Crafted by Cleetus, which is a line of foods that’s translating to my beer collaborations. I have a brand that’s out there now. Someone from the Tribune said that I’ve brewed more beers than most breweries.
Do you know your exact brew count?
Yea, I keep a list of all my collaborations. I think it’s close to 40 now.
Is there one that holds a special place in your heart? Or is that like picking a favorite kid?
That’s exactly what it’s like. When I’m out in the dining room and they ask what’s my favorite dish, it’s just like picking my favorite kid. They’re all on the menu because I love them all. My beers – every single one of them has a special place for me and have brought out something unique in me and my relationship with the brewer. The reaction that I get from people when they drink is pretty awesome. There are a lot of people that follow my collaborations so it’s fun to talk to them and find out what their favorite was.
No, I just do it with the big boys. Why would I homebrew? I learned on a 15 bbl brew system!
What about a style of beer that you haven’t brewed but would like to?
I want to do an Eisbock. It’s that’s whole freezing process that nobody does anymore. I kind of know which brewers would be into brewing certain things. That’s something that I think I could bring to only a few brewers.
When you premier one of your beers, are you pairing a dish from your kitchen to go with it?
Yea definitely. But some beers don’t need pairings. They’re food centric beers and I don’t know what I’m going to pair with it until I taste it. When I’m making a beer though, it’s beer first. When I’m doing a beer dinner, it always starts with the beverage.
You’ve used dozens of unique ingredients in your beers. How do you decide what will work and what won’t?
This is when the collaboration process comes in because brewers typically have an understanding of the science aspect of brewing. If I want to bring strawberries and rhubarb into a Saison, it’s a matter of how much and where to utilize them. I gotta say, I’ve been working with a lot of talented people so we haven’t fucked anything up yet.
So on a brew day, it sounds like you’re one of the brewers? Really getting your hands dirty.
Oh yea, 100%. Otherwise, what is this? That’s my work ethic, period. If I’m stirring the pot, graining out, cleaning. It’s a day’s work, sometimes a couple days.
Taking a step back from your beer, we’re big fans of the other joints in the Fountainhead group. How involved are you there?
I’m the executive chef of the group. So I’m in charge of the kitchen at The Bar on Buena, Fountainhead, Fountainhead Market, the Northman, and Montrose Saloon. Although they don’t have a kitchen, just a wall of chips. I’m the executive chip curator. We have over 35 different chips!
So The Northman…what’s the deal?
Oh, we’re talking about that now! We’re moving quickly now. The windows are in, drywall is going up, the wood on the back bar is up. They’re really motoring. It was just a matter of knocking down some walls. When we open, it will be awesome.
Craft cider definitely looks to be following in the footsteps of craft beer. Any plans for a cider collab?
I actually did a collaboration with Vander Mill called Sweet ’73 – an apple and honey cider aged in Jack Daniels barrels. It was released on Rosh Hashanah, which is the Jewish holiday with apples and honey. We were going to do a Sweet ’74 and ’75 but everyone got crazy busy. I’ll probably do another cider with somebody.
Taking a step back from your own beer, you guys have an impressive beer list at all the bars. How do your beer buyers manage the demand for your tap space?
It’s such a hard thing to do because there’s so much to choose from. There are so many breweries that you have relationships with, and you’re not going to make them all happy. One day they’re going to come in and say, “Where’s my handle?” And that happens. We try to rotate people through, get what’s exciting, get unique beers. We have a shit load in bottles and cans.
But I would not want to be a brewery right now. We’re going to start seeing who’s got the big boy pants. There’s not enough shelf space, not enough tap space. There are a lot of great breweries out there, but there aren’t a whole lot of really stellar beers coming out. You get duds. Consistency is hard.
It’s increasingly hard for a new brewery to stand out nowadays.
I have guys who want to open up breweries and ask my opinion. I tell them they need to come out with something awesome. Something that’s not a blonde. People love IPA’s, but how is your IPA going to stand up against Lagunitas? People drink them because they’re consistently awesome. You can’t get there out the gate, so don’t try to compete with that.
You’re obviously a big proponent of locally sourced food and drink. How important is that for you?
My local attitude has not changed. But working at Fountainhead, I’ve had to open up to worldly influence, from Scotland, Japan, England, and Ireland. It’s still the same philosophy, working with small producers, understanding the relationship behind it. Ultimately, it’s about knowing where stuff is coming from. For my beers, it’s the same. Cultivating the relationship, and have it grow with the collaborative process.
But who cares about farm to table? That’s the way it should be. Let’s start talking about the people that aren’t cooking like that. I call it truck to table. Let’s talk about those people and single them out because we’re not doing anything special.
We’re always impressed by how knowledgeable the staff is about the food and beer throughout the Fountainhead group.
Oh yea. Before every single shift, our servers go through the draft list, and taste every beer. There’s a big education process that comes along with that because they know they’re gonna hear it from the enthusiasts and they’re going to ask questions.
But at end of the day, we’re just making beer. It’s just beer! Everybody calm down. Fucking, beer! Put your Untappd down and enjoy it.
How about a brewery you’d love to brew with?
There are a few actually. I wanted to brew with Bells for a long time because that was the first beer I had in Chicago. I have a tattoo of their Cream Stout artwork on my arm. It really turned me onto the local brew scene. Flying Dog, I’d like to brew with, only because they’re from Maryland. I want to brew with Hitachino in Japan. If I had to choose one brewery, it would be them.
Now that the initial boom of Chicago breweries seems to have slowed slightly, what gets your really excited in the local scene?
Well, the audience is changing. We’re getting 60-70 year olds coming in and seeking out craft beer.
The success of the young breweries excites me. It excites me when people push the envelope. I love what 5 Rabbit is doing with Paletas because it’s unique. Whether you like it or not, whether it’s good or bad, it’s not like anybody else.
I love that Revolution is becoming this huge brewery. I love Metropolitan and everything they do. Their beers are so solid, I love their branding, I love their attitude. I obviously love the guys at Begyle – they don’t take themselves too seriously. Watching BJ and Garrett grow at Pipeworks is crazy. At Off Color, I love what John is doing. His beers are so good and his quirky sense of humor. I like how the breweries are really taking on the personalities of the people who are running them.
I think 15 years from now, we’re going to look back and say how crazy this was. It’s a good time to be a glutton.
When you head home today, what are you drinking?
In the summer I’ve been big on New Zealand sauvignon blancs. I’ve been drinking more wines lately. When I’m here, I taste whiskey almost every day. In my fridge right now, I have Stone Go-To IPA. I have Reign in Blood from Dark Horse. My buddy from Ohio brings me MadTree from Cincinnati. If I had to pick one brewery that I would love to get beer from on a regular basis, it would be Side Project.
Photography by Robert Battista
Thanks to Cleetus for finding time away from cooking and brewing to sit down and chat with us. Keep an eye out for Cleetus next time you stop into Fountainhead, perhaps perched at the end of the bar, sipping a Sazerac before heading home.